There’s a Brazilian saying, “oito ou oitenta.” Eight or eighty. It’s either one extreme or the other.
The past nine days have seen a usually passive, non confrontational Brazilian population hit the “80” on that scale, taking to the streets in their millions to demand better health care, better education, an end to corruption and, with the FIFA World Cup arriving on its shores in less than a year, to protest the tens of billions of Reais being spent on stadiums instead of social infrastructure.
The World Cup, and the ongoing Confederations Cup that precedes it, has become a useful backdrop to protesters who claim the government has its priorities mixed up, but it would be a mistake and a lazy one to label these demonstrations “football riots.”
As a popular action, what’s going on in Brazil looks and sounds a lot like recent and concurrent protests in other parts of the world, particularly those that have experienced significant economic growth over the past decade and are home to young, energetic populations with first world expectations to accompany their arrival in it.
Between 2003 and 2011 nearly 40 million Brazilians made their way from extreme poverty to a new, burgeoning middle class, and while economic inequality is still considered extreme by Canadian standards it is nothing like it was before the new millennium.
A generation of Brazilians has now grown up within this new reality, and on June 13 a handful of them gathered in Sao Paulo to protest a hike in transit fares.
What might have dissipated over time or with a reversal of the decision (which was granted this week) suddenly and unexpectedly escalated when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, and like breath blown on sleeping embers their heavy handed use of force brought the kindling to ignition.
Reached by telephone in Sao Paulo, TV Globo presenter Jon Cotterill told the Free Press that many Brazilians were still trying to make sense of just what the protests had become, and where they could lead.
“I think people haven’t really grasped how significant these things are,” he said. “I don’t think they really, really understand how deep these things, these demonstrations, could be.”
Initially, he said, the students who first took the streets in Sao Paulo were looked upon as “vandals” and “troublemakers” by various politicians and media outlets, but, he added, “when they were fired on it really changed. Instead of being these middle class students just out to cause trouble, suddenly they became heroes. Everything changed totally.”
With the Confederations Cup and upcoming World Cup fixing more international attention on Brazil than ever before, it was only a matter of time before both events not only got drawn into the demonstrations but also, because of their enormity, came to symbolize them.
The magnitude of the scrutiny and the pressure imposed by FIFA to stage safe, secure competitions has likely had more than a little to do with the severe approach taken by the police, and to that end the governing body of the world’s most popular sport is very much tied up with all the other things Brazilians want to see changed.
On Thursday, following Uruguay’s 2 1 Confederations Cup win over Nigeria in Salvador, protesters hurled rocks at FIFA vehicles in the Bahia capital, and as demonstrations took place in at least 80 cities Brazilian outlet UOL reported FIFA had presented the Brazilian government with an ultimatum: either ensure the safety of the players, international press and its own officials or face cancellation of the event.
Paulo Freitas, a Brazilian football expert based in Rio de Janeiro, told the Free Press he would be surprised if the Confederations Cup was cancelled, or if the World Cup was in any danger, saying, “(FIFA) will just wait until all of this is over and hope things are more stable in a year, probably with increased and improved security.”
The thing is, no one knows just where these demonstrations will take the country over the coming weeks and months, and even if the Brazilian government moves to address the protesters’ concerns it’s unlikely FIFA will emerge from all this unscathed.
After all, it sets up its World Cups like a tropical resort a sort of hastily manufactured paradise that caters to the amusements of foreigners.
If things are kept to an “eight” it all works out fine. It’s when it hits 80 that things get messy that FIFA, quite rightfully, is caught in the crosshairs.